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9 Things: Right Back Down To Earth, AC Milan vs Spezia Calcio, 0-2

Milan falls from the top spot on the Serie A table for the first time since Matchday three.

Spezia Calcio v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

AC Milan vs Spezia Calcio

Team Goals xG(NPxG) Shots (On Target) NPxG per Shot Possession
Team Goals xG(NPxG) Shots (On Target) NPxG per Shot Possession
AC Milan 0 0.4(0.4) 7(0) 0.06 53%
Spezia Calcio 2 2.0(2.0) 17(4) 0.12 47%
FBref and StatsBomb


In every season there are acceptable losses and then there is this. Losing to Juventus FC is simply a reality of most Serie A campaigns, but losing to a newly promoted side, that is trying to find its identity is a massive issue. AC Milan did not have one or two problems that sunk this match, everything was off. Obviously, chance creation was a notable issue. There was an utter lack of a process in this match. No Rossoneri player had an open play shot assist and only two players - Hakan Çalhanoğlu and Samu Castillejo - generated any expected assists. Now, this was not an issue that came directly because of poor offensive performances from the forwards. The fullback and midfield pairing floated between unusable and direct liability. Their inability to prevent Spezia Calcio players from breaking internally, combined with their failures to generate breakout passes, sunk any chance that Milan had at sustainably creating offense. Every facet of Milan’s play was misfiring and Spezia - to their credit - took advantage.

2: Where It Fell Apart, Part 1

Ismaël Bennacer and Franck Kessié lost their defensive mentalities in unison. They both struggled to keep opposing attackers in front of them and neither controlled widening gaps in their coverage. Bennacer struggled to maintain a defensive shape while playing aggressively and Kessié spent too much time backing away from challenges. These two problems played off of each other in the worst possible way. Bennacer’s activity and Kessié’s lack of action led to a giant gap in coverage with the two players almost playing vertically (Bennacer played slightly ahead of Kessié). When it works the two can disrupt and redirect play forward, but the lack of support and structure they played with led to the team’s lack of organization in the middle.

Compounding this problem was how poorly these two dealt with the Spezia press. They both finished well below their typical progressive pass and carry totals while also struggling to break through any pressure. This stunted the Milan offensive play as the ball would stay trapped in the defensive third, with no real way to push the play upfield. If either had started completing passes consistently, then maybe Milan would have had a better chance of winning. However, neither did and the team suffered because of it.

3: Where It Fell Apart, Part 2

Diogo Dalot got taken to the cleaners (beaten egregiously). The Portuguese fullback has never been known for his defensive contributions, but his frailties in that department were on full display. He struggled simply keeping players in front of him, especially Riccardo Saponara. Similar to the midfield duo, Dalot struggled to connect with his right-sided partner, Alexis Saelemaekers. Between the lack of structure and his inability to connect passes together, Dalot showed what a poor performance from him can look like. Concerningly, he looked poor in a position that needs to play with structure.

Part of the midfield’s struggles came from Dalot’s lack of positional play. That overextended the Bennacer and Kessié who were not able to extend themselves enough to cover the gaps being created by both fullbacks. While Theo Hernández did not have his best game in a Milan jersey, he plays in a free role that gives him license to attack aggressively. The right-back role requires the player to be positionally competent while receiving and giving support to the right-winger. Dalot did neither and the team paid for his inability to control his section of the field.

4: But What Is Saelemaekers doing

Not much… which is a problem.

Much like the right-back position, the right-wing role is meant to provide support and structure to the team. Saelemaekers had been impressive in this role because of how well he determines the flow of play and provides defensive support. Recently, he has not added much to the side. His defensive displays have stayed above-average, but he no longer generates chances for others. The Belgian winger is now well below average in expected assists and shot-creating actions per 90 when compared to other wingers. That had been fine when he was providing defensive and pressing skills to the side, but his recent play has lacked in most facets. Against Spezia, he struggled to support Dalot, drive play, or generate offense for others. It has been a few weeks of him struggling to add much when he plays. I think giving him some time to find his form and realize what he has been missing in his play will only benefit the team. He needs a rest.

5: We Continue With Problems

For the first time in some time, Hakan looked ineffectual. I typically do not worry about his poor performances too much, but this is a special case. His lack of involvement was a mixture of a tactical failure and an activity failure. Hakan needed to drop deeper and provide more support to Kessié and Beenacer, but instead, he maintained his positional play. Choosing that over providing more support to his teammates limited his influence throughout the match. He never found a way to connect Rafael Leão and Zlatan Ibrahimović and did not provide much progressive play. While Hakan was semi-isolated against the Spezia midfield trio, he still had ways to break around this group, like supplying Leão more, but instead spent too much time on the ball or floating in areas that took him out of passing lanes. It was a bad day.

6: Putting In Mario Mandžukić and Jens Petter Hauge Made No Sense

I will go through what I thought should have happened in the next section, but this rotation made no sense to me. Mandžukić and Zlatan should probably not see that much time on the field together - too similar - and this is not the group that I would switch into a 4-4-2 with. There is a better group to do this with and one that maintains a tactically interesting side that has more individual skill. The attacking quartet to end this match did not have that.

7: Stefano Pioli Struggled

Pioli had an out at halftime. He needed to place Pierre Kalulu on the pitch and take off Saelemaekers for Samu. Those two moves would have refreshed the right side of the pitch and provided the backline with a better defensive player than Dalot. Instead, Pioli subbed off a midfielder, a forward, and a center back before addressing the right side in the eighty-third minute. That was foolish. The attacking group needed to change, but the problem was down the right side, and without addressing that, nothing was going to get better. While the Italian manager did finally address this problem, seven minutes is nowhere near enough time to make substantial changes in the remaining proceedings. There was a lack of action that sunk Milan, and even when an action was taken, it was misguided.

8: More Title Updates

On February 7th, Milan was at 83% to finish in a Champions League spot and at a 23% chance to win the league. Now, Milan is at a 68% chance to finish in the top four and at a 12% chance to win the league. That is a 15% and an 11% reduction respectively. I am worried that this loss, the current downturn in form, and the upcoming match against FC Internazionale will almost define and determine the Serie A title. If Inter wins the derby, the likelihood that they win the league will go through the roof. While none of this is to say that the dream is over, this loss puts a sizable dent in our chances. A win was expected, necessary, and did not happen. Hopefully, Milan can right the ship on Thursday and Sunday, but this is a season-defining week and Milan has started it poorly.

9: Overall Thoughts

Spezia deserves credit. They won this game. Milan needs to reorganize their thoughts and regroup coming into a tough week on the schedule. Win both of these games and we take control over the title race, lose and you will be scrambling to stay in trophy races. Pioli is a smart enough coach to realize this and will hopefully help players find confidence in the upcoming match. Unfortunately, Inter is on a bit of a tear at the moment and seem likely to focus every fiber of their being on the Scudetto race. If Milan can pull the rug out from under them, then anything is possible for the remainder of the season. However, the work starts on Thursday. A win there and we can come in riding high for the most important derby in almost a decade.